Life's not black and white

BY ARIKIA MILLIKAN

Published March 31, 2008

Some people try to say that Florida isn't really part of "the South." But having spent seven years in the swamplands of Gainesville, where Confederate flags fly high and adorn rearview windows along the outskirts of town, I beg to differ. And trust me, there were plenty of remnants of pre-civil rights movement racism.

As a multi-racial girl trying to navigate my way through the awkward phases of middle and high school, I was often victimized for my ambiguous appearance. Sometimes, white kids would make fun of my curly hair, calling it "nigger hair." If I told my white friends, who considered me one of them because my skin is more light than dark, that I was mixed, they would act shocked and patronizingly try to comfort me. "Well, you don't act black. I never would have known," they would say. Whatever that means.

The racism I experienced wasn't just directed at me. On countless occasions, I would be sitting among a group of white peers when the conversation would turn to the negative qualities they saw in black people. Because so many people assumed I was white, they spoke freely in front of me, making racist jokes they assumed I would find as funny as they did. I didn't. But I didn't have the courage then to tell them why.

That's one of the reasons I chose to apply to the University of Michigan - I wanted to get as far away from the racism of the South as possible. And for the most part, while going to college here, I didn't see much of it. I made friends who value me for who I am and see my differences as beautiful, not as things I should try to change.

Even on the pseudo-liberal greens of campus, though, I still encounter curious peers who innocently ask, "So . what are you?" My response varies, depending on what mood I'm in. Sometimes I'm "a Scorpio" or "an American" or "a human being, what are you?"

"No, no," they reply. Silly me, I didn't understand the question. "Like, what are you?" Sometimes if I think they're fishing for the un-white component, I tell them my dad's from Haiti. Other times, I break it down for them. My mom is Ukrainian, Native American and Scotch-Irish, and my father is Haitian and Dominican (so African, French and Spanish). Although the question is annoying, I shrug it off because I know some of my friends don't understand how to talk about race or are legitimately curious about my ethnicity. I'm not so patient with my explanation when I get the sense that the only reason why someone is asking is so they can put me in the "other" group and disregard me. Then I roll my eyes and walk away.

But it wasn't until last week that I felt personally objectified on this campus because of a racist comment. I was alone in an Angell Hall computer lab when a black girl came in with a male friend. I was minding my own business while they chatted away. I only tuned into their conversation when I heard her making fun of him. "Whatever, you know you've got some white in you. You know you're mixed," the girl chided her fair-skinned acquaintance. "Nuh uh," he responded, offended. "I'm black, don't dis me like that."

Sometimes, people don't understand that although white people have usually had the power in society and black people have fought and continue to fight for equality, racism isn't unidirectional.

After four years of tolerance and support at this university, which is more diverse than people give it credit, I have the courage to take a stand in situations like this. I interjected into their conversation and asked if they thought being mixed was a bad thing. The girl was instantly embarrassed. She tried to defend herself, saying she was "just kidding." But I explained to her that when you use a characteristic as an insult, you essentially label that characteristic as negative and could offend the people who may have it. It's in the same vein as calling someone a faggot in jest.

Racism still emerges, even on campus, when insensitive people think no one who would care is listening. People are going to see others how they want to see them. Sometimes white people see me as white even though that's only a part of my identity. But now if they make racist jokes, I call them out. It's easier to give people simple labels, but it just doesn't make sense to look at everyone as either/or.

If we only look at race in terms of black and white, we devalue all the wonderful colors and shades in between.

Arikia Millikan is a Daily associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at arikia@umich.edu.